Sunday, June 07, 2015

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Art Gallery of Ontario, to 15 August 2015)
     We’ve always liked Emily Carr’s pictures, but we’ve seen very few of them. So it was a treat to see so many of her paintings and drawings in one place. We went through the show once, then had lunch with Sowtons, then went through the show a second time. That hour or so of percolation through the subconscious helped: I was more sure of what I liked and why.
     Like many artists, Carr was always trying to define her vision, to find ways of expressing and sharing her experience. Every one of her rare meetings with other artists in Canada and Europe prompted her to experiment with composition, brushwork, and colour. She saw movement or life everywhere. It’s hard to realise that the totems and houses that she painted in her early years were in fact derelict and rotting away. In her last paintings she overlays the nearly abstract arrangements of sky, earth, sea, and trees with swirling strokes that express her sense of movement, of intense interaction between these elements. The most effective paintings show trees and earth rising into a blazing whirlpool of light. Lawren Harris gave her the confidence to move towards abstraction. She knew her energetic brushwork looked like van Gogh’s; her comment that van Gogh was crazy but knew about “go” or life shows I think that she was proud of the implied compliment, but characteristically played it down.
     The show also includes drawings and sketchbooks. Carr was trained in water colours, like many young women of her class and time. She clearly had superior talent; her watercolours of totem poles and villages show great technical skill and are more than mere documentation. She made up a lovely little book narrating a tour to Alaska that she took with her sister. Her later sketchbooks show that she tested her visual ideas obsessively, returning again and again to trees, sketching them as flowing forms that become gestures as much as pictures.
     The show included vitrines displaying artworks, masks, and other objects made by West Coat First Nations. These give us a context for Carr’s fascination with First Nations art, but also remind us that for many Europeans their beauty must have been an uncomfortable revelation.
     A good show. Go see it. ****

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